Article/ Subversion: Subverting the Self

Subversion curator Omar Kholeif discusses the motivation and ideas behind the exhibition…

The spark for Subversion clicked in my head in 2009. I had just come back from a frustrating summer in Egypt trying to do some work on some deteriorating film archives, and when I returned to the UK everyone was buzzing about a show in London that had lots of Middle Eastern (and Arab) artists in it. I won’t name the exhibition, as everyone (myself included) has criticised it enough. However, it’s safe to say that it triggered all sorts of emotions within me and many of the artists with whom I was working, both from within and from outside of the Arab world. At that point I felt, and I still feel much the same way now, that Western institutions were still talking about artists from particular parts of the world using the same rhetoric that originated from post-colonial writers in the 1990s. In a sense, we had never moved beyond out dated modes of identity politics. Instead, I wanted to talk about what it means to be an individual in a post-internet, post social media human condition.

I started having a series of open conversations with Cornerhouse when Sarah Perks (Cornerhouse Programme and Engagement Director) was pulling together the Contemporary Art Iraq (2010) exhibition. I respected and appreciated the motivation of the project, and Cornerhouse’s desire to piece together a story that side stepped the narrative of victimhood we had all come to expect. After these initial conversations, I went back to the artists whom I found most compelling; in particular, the films of Larissa Sansour and Sharif Waked. One of the themes that resonated most strongly, and which continued to re-surface through subsequent discussions, was this notion that artists from and of the Arab world felt that they had to perform to a sense of national or regional identity that politicians, the news media, and the art world and its cultural brokers had cast upon them.  This is what influenced the title of the show. The name Subversion is intended to be ironic or playful – a critique of the fact the media only tends to think or speak in oppositional binary terms.

My own personal history as a Glaswegian Egyptian-Turkish writer and curator was much the same as the artist. Like many of the artists I was looking at, I felt that collectively curators and writers associated with the politically unstable Arab world were being asked to step up and perform to an identity that the world wanted us to play. With Subversion my aim was to do just the opposite. I worked with artists who referenced this very language but who wanted to dissent, poke fun, critique and re-define themselves as artists of the imagination, and not of any specific social or political condition. Together they reference a deep culture of subversion that traces back to the 1940s and 50s with the work of the Egyptian trickster, Ismail Yassin, whose slapstick film performances poked fun at the roles that many Arabs had to play under a militarised social condition.With Subversion we bring this narrative up to date for the good of our artists and our audiences.

Subversion is on show in Galleries 1, 2 & 3 between Sat 14 April – Tue 5 June